“Death Be Never Last”

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year B]

John 11:32-44 and Isaiah 25:6-9

“Death be now but never last.” The guy who wrote that hymn, Ray Makeever, composed those words just after his wife’s death from cancer. He says the words came to him as he woke up from a nap—a nap he had taken weary from grief no doubt—like a voice of God speaking to his mind. “Death be now but never last” is not just a line from Makeever’s hymn. It is, in fact, the refrain of the church on this festival of all its saints—like something we’d say at Easter but here in the midst of autumn and its days of decreasing light and warmth. God speaks to us into the haze of our grief: “Death be now but never last.”

Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, the Alpha and the Omega, a force of life that makes all things new and so death be now but never last.

The hands that were pierced with nails are already wiping away our tears for the day to come and the head that bled from thorns now wears a crown of victory reminding us that thought death be in our presence now, it is never last.

And, oh, how we need to hear this refrain because right now we look around and it seems all we see is death. We look around and see so many faces covered with masks and other reminders of this blasted pandemic. We look around and we see looming inflation and supply chain failure, natural disasters and famine. We look around and we notice how dreadfully tomb-like life seems to be—people still sequestered in their homes or nursing care facilities or hospitals, guests limited to one at a time, if at all. I hear in conversations with people more themes of burnout and fatigue, more than I ever have before. Death be now…death be so now.

It was that way for Lazarus and his sisters, and the town of mourners in Bethany who had assembled outside his tomb. Death be already four days for Lazarus who had succumbed to his illness before his buddy Jesus could get there to say goodbye or maybe—hopefully—work one of his healing miracles to save him. He’s already wrapped up in the traditional ceremonial cloths that give dignity to the deceased and help shield it a bit from the forces of decay. Jesus finally shows up and it is death and its ugliness everywhere he looks. People are crying, Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha are understandably distraught, maybe even a little frustrated at Jesus, and the whole scene is loss and grief—except for a few who use it as an opportunity to mock Jesus.

It even affects Jesus. Not once, not twice, but three times in this short passage we see Jesus overcome with emotions. The people there seem to interpret Jesus’ tears as sorrow and grief, thinking that he is crying because he was close to Lazarus and was sad to see him die. That may be so, and we certainly find it moving that the Lord of life would weep like we do at the death of a friend. But the Greek word used for Jesus’ reaction of great disturbance is more in line with anger and agitation. Jesus sees everyone else standing around Lazarus’ tomb and is overcome with righteous frustration at the chaos and devastation and, yes, burnout and fatigue brought about by the presence of death and sin.

Regardless of what Jesus’ emotions mean, we can definitely notice what Jesus’ first words are. It’s a question: “Where have you laid him?” Jesus’ first instinct in the midst of this turmoil is to go to where the death is. It’s as if he asks, “Where have you stashed your sorrows, your griefs? Where have you locked away your dead ends, your failed dreams? That is precisely where I want to go?” And when we’d rather explain to God why that sounds like a dumb idea, that we’ve already given up, that there would be no use to go there, Jesus just insists those are the things he wants to see. He wants to know the things that bring us pain he wants to know where the grief springs from for he knows that in those places is precisely where God’s glory can be shown. If death must be now, then Jesus must be there.

And so he goes to the very door of the tomb of Lazarus, a cave that has been enclosed with a large stone. Against the murmurs of doubt and surprise, against the warnings about the stench from inside, Jesus calls Lazarus out, and Lazarus walks right out, alive and well again. Because death be now, but never last.

We have probably seen so many churches and cathedrals of so many different kinds that we may not realize that the first public spaces that Christians created and occupied for themselves were not churches or social halls but rather cemeteries. Archaeologists have long known that he oldest distinctly Christian space was a set of underground burial chambers constructed in Rome in the early 3rd century called the catacombs of Callixtus. And in those burial chambers early Christians celebrated worship right alongside the bones of their dead loved ones, so confident were they of Jesus’ promise to make all things new and call forth life from the depths of darkness.

But even more profound than that is the fact that along the walls and ceilings of these dark chambers and passageways are images and designs created with paint and mosaic. They are the first known original Christian artworks.[1] Prior to this, all examples of Christian art were artifacts and trinkets borrowed from secular sources or other religions. The first unique expressions of Christian beauty were created right there in the tombs. What a powerful statement of the gospel! Although death may think it will have its say and last forever, although grief may scream loud and long, those who’ve been claimed by Jesus know that life has the final word. “We’re going to scrawl images of hope and joy right here on the walls of these tombs!”

Catacombs of Callixtus

Beauty and life have the final word because Jesus himself goes to where the death is and speaks into it. He doesn’t just call Lazarus forth, but lays in the tomb himself, dead as he can be, dead from hanging on a cross, so that God may raise him up again. This is the reality that pierces our autumn gloom, our days of grief and burnout here in November 2021.

And so we have hope that death be now but never last for each of our Lazaruses too.

For the Lazarus who loved to golf, but whose cancer crept back by surprise despite the gains made in treatment over the past two years. For the Lazarus who liked to work with wood, but who was taken suddenly by a heart attack as he happily worked on a home improvement project with his son-in-law. For the one who love the Yankees, but who could not turn back the affects of dementia and pneumonia, and the one who died peacefully in her sleep in the bedroom just downstairs from her beloved granddaughters. For the Lazarus who was a big UVA fan, but who died on a ventilator with COVID, unable to share his last days with his family, who heard his last earthly prayer and “I love you” through a Zoom call on an iPad that a nurse, head-to-toe in PPE, held over the bed. Death be now but never last for them and all the others, and we name our dead and through our tears paint the beauty of God their lives on the walls of our sorrow, We talk of that beauty because their lives pointed to that kingdom, a kingdom where because of Jesus’ love they are unbound and free to go.

We all wait for that day, in fact, in the tombs of here and now. We wait for that promised day when the tears will be dried from our eyes, when the shroud that is cast over all peoples will be destroyed fully by the wounds and the tears of our Redeemer. Just as we await the end of these pandemic restrictions, we cast our eyes even farther past, toward that time when all will be gathered unto God on his holy mountain, a scene that the prophet Isaiah reassures God’s people with at a time when they are wandering and without hope.

Back in the spring a member of our church council who works in public relations for the Virginia ABC had to arrange a photo shoot for an article that was going to be run in the ABC magazine, a quarterly publication that goes by the clever name Spirited Virginia. The article, in fact, was in part about emerging from a year’s worth of shutdown by gathering with friends you haven’t seen in a while and serving festive drinks to celebrate.

To find people for this photo shoot, this council member decided to enlist none other than some friends from her church small group here at Epiphany. They all gathered one spring day out at her river house and concocted a bunch of fake cocktails and drinks with food coloring and posed with their glasses raised in celebration. You can go to page 35 and page 22 of the fall 2021 edition of Spirited Virginia and see Epiphany members toasting drinks which, for the purposes of photography, aren’t even real. Apparently it was such a good time that one of them even knocked over a whole tray of fake margaritas.

In a time of stress I know several of us have gotten more than one chuckle at the thought of this scene—people I know and love having a good time with each other pretending to party as models in a magazine. Like Isaiah’s vision, it was to cast hope towards a brighter time in our near future. But even this cheerfulness pales in comparison to the laughter and joy and relief we will all experience when God’s victory over sin and death is complete. There won’t be any fake food coloring in the drinks on that day. It will be rich food and well-aged wines, as the prophet Isaiah promises, food filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear.

And the Lord God will wipe away all tears from all faces and, I’m sure, all facemasks and ventilators too. And the Lord God will be done with agitation and anger at all the damages done by death. And he will look at the all the disgraces that hold us back from God’s good life and say with a loud voice of love: “Unbind my people and let them go. Let them go forever for I, I am the resurrection and the life. Death be then,” God will say, “but Christ it is never, ever last!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years, Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press. 2012. pages 47ff

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